This is the landscape of nightmares: pitch black, zero oxygen, freezing cold. Beyond the inky, icy darkness lies a seemingly endless expanse of barren rock. Here, silt swirls like snow. Strange creatures, their pale bodies as white as bleached bones, scuttle between rocks. And the pressure is so great that a human would be instantly crushed into a sugar-cube-size clump of flesh and bone.
But this alien world isn't science fiction. Nor is it the surface of Mars or Jupiter. It's the Mariana Trench: the deepest depths of the ocean, more than 36,000 feet below the surface. Deeper than Mount Everest is tall, the trench is one of the most isolated and extreme environments on Earth.
It's about to have visitors.
Three teams of explorers are locked in a race to reach this godforsaken spot of Pacific Ocean soil. In a contest that would make Captain Nemo proud, each is scrambling to assemble a high-tech submarine capable of withstanding the mind-boggling journey seven miles straight down into the abyss.
Two of the teams have all the money in the world on their side. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and his silver mane headline one. Hollywood bigwig James Cameron leads another. The director of Avatar and Titanic has already pumped $10 million into his sub, whose design is a closely guarded secret.
Then there is Patrick Lahey. The president of tiny Central Florida company Triton Submarines is everything his two rich rivals are not: a buzz-cut, blue-collar diver with a mouth as dirty as Dennis Leary's and a hardscrabble history to match. Lahey and his band of salty submariners are heavy underdogs. But if they can dive their uniquely designed, perfectly spherical sub to the bottom of the trench before Branson and Cameron do, they'll be heroes. And if they can persuade reality television producers to film the whole ordeal, the average Joes might even get rich.
Lahey has already braved a daring career of toting bombs to the bottom of the sea, survived innumerable explosions and equipment failures, and even skirted the feds after one boss was caught conspiring to traffic tons of cocaine for Colombian drug lords.
But his race into the abyss is his riskiest venture yet. Not only is the Mariana Trench the most dangerous spot on the planet, but also the $15 million gamble Lahey has taken to build his craft in a Vero Beach garage could easily torpedo his company if he comes in second or third. If he wins, success could propel Triton to the top of the submarine industry.
"I'm not a scientist or an engineer, just a high school graduate who became a hard-hat diver," Lahey says of his quest. "But more people have been to the moon than have been to the bottom of our own ocean. That doesn't make any goddamn sense."
Patrick Lahey swam down into the darkness and tried not to think about the bomb in his hands. A thin wire snaked from a metal cylinder full of C4 to a detonator on the ship hundreds of feet above. The 110-pound charge was designed to obliterate old oil wells, but it could just as easily annihilate Lahey.
Slowly, the outline of an oil pipe emerged. The trim diver lowered the explosive into the 30-inch opening like a father laying down his infant son. From behind his diving mask, he winced as it clanked against the sides of the pipe. Finally, it touched bottom. Lahey exhaled and headed back toward the California coastal sunlight.
"There was no way the bomb could go off until we were back on the boat," Lahey says now, nearly 30 years later. "At least that's what they always told us, and I was stupid enough to believe 'em."
Lahey has spent most of his life under the waves, first as a diver for offshore oil companies and later at the helm of nearly every commercial submarine ever built. For him, the journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench isn't a bored billionaire's latest thrill or a business mogul's advertising gimmick. It's the culmination of a lifelong obsession with the ocean — one that has driven him to deeper, more dangerous waters.
Lahey was born in 1962 in Ottawa, Ontario, where the only body of water was the frigid river winding through town. But he grew up awed by the stories of his father, who had battled Nazi U-boats as a member of the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. So when his father took a job building houses in Barbados, Patrick was primed for adventures at sea.
He could smell the Caribbean from his house in Holetown on Barbados's west coast. The former pirate port was ideal for a rambunctious child like Patrick. When he wasn't taking apart the telephone, he was outside stirring up trouble with his seven siblings. They would wag their tamarind-stained tongues while swinging on vines during recess, sword fight with banyan leaves, and sneak into a local bar to watch a trained monkey dance. Once, Patrick and his older brother Jim were chasing each other around a hotel construction site when Jim stubbed his toe on something. When the two dug into the soil, they unearthed a human skull with a musket-ball hole through it.